As a long-time soccer fan - and an Asian! - I have observed with some degree of enthusiasm the steady but definite improvement in the overall quality of East Asian players and teams in the last twenty-five years. As two of the most economically prosperous countries in the East, it seems natural that Japan and South Korea would be the leaders in developing domestic soccer leagues and youth development programs which have produced some talented players and exciting teams. In the recent World Cup in South Africa, both teams performed reasonably well and produced some exciting football to illustrate that the gap in quality between the traditional football powers (Europe and South America) and Asia is slowly decreasing.
Japan and South Korea's heavy investment in soccer has paid dividends, with several players from both countries earning the opportunity to play with some of Europe's teams in the world's toughest leagues. The now retired Hidetoshi Nakata became something of a flamboyant sex symbol/superstar whilst playing in the Italian League, and was nominated for the Footballer of The Year Award several times. South Korean, Park-Ji-Sung, has become a regular for Manchester United - one of the world's most renowned teams. Park has become something of an unsung hero of Manchester and a cult hero amongst its fans. Keisuke Honda has impressed in the Russian league and seems poised to become a true soccer hero. Most recently, Japanese player Yuto Nagamoto has joined Italian football giants, Inter Milan. Quick and tricky, he torments opponents with pentetrating runs and dangerous crosses. In addition to these four, there are, and have, been several others playing in European leagues who have become an integral part of their teams and have been embraced by their team's fans.
Apart from enjoying the skill and passion that Asian footballers like these bring to the game, the development and inclusion of Asian men as sportsmen in a mainstream pastime represents a potential avenue toward changing negative stereotypes. I tend to feel that the role that Asian sportsmen can play in countering demeaning stereotypes is often overlooked or ignored. The general consensus seems to be that it is through media characters that project a positive image of Asian men that the image of our demographic will improve. I don't necessarily agree with this entirely.
It could be argued that, historically, it has been through the process of excelling at sports where the most dramatic shifts in attitudes and beliefs about racial groups has been the most apparent. For instance, the great Jack Johnson almost single-handedly destroyed the myth of white physical superiority by defeating the best white boxers of his era. Granted, there was a severe reaction to his success, but after Johnson it could only be a matter of time before black boxers would be given opportunities in the ring. In soccer itself, players like Pele and Eusebio became football gods at a time when racial discrimination was the norm. Now, in the present era, black players make up a huge percentage of soccer players and along with it has come the commitment of reducing discrimination and racism in football.
This is why Asian sportsmen should be viewed as being at the forefront of the fight against demeaning stereotypes and beliefs about Asian men. No doubt, positive media representations can only be a good thing, but ultimately a movie hero depictions are escapism that we all know isn't real. A successful sportsman, on the other hand, competes and hopefully excels in real events where, as Asian men, they are not expected to do well. Just like modern day Jack Johnsons, Asian sportsmen are contradicting the notion that Asian men are inherently weaker than non-Asians, and are thus, slowly breaking down barriers in perception and in society in general.